Biologist to LatAm: Take early virus containment measures, don’t do like UK

By Jorge Fuentelsaz

New York, Mar 17 (efe-epa).- Biologist and expert in infectious diseases Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, who at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital is searching for a vaccine for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, recommends to Latin American countries that they take “early containment measures” to slow the spread of the virus “much more than those that are (being taken) in other countries,” criticizing in particular the approach taken by the United Kingdom.

The Spaniard greeted EFE with an elbow bump at the door of the Icahn College of Medicine, where the headquarters of the institute he heads – the Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute – is located.

“You have to … undertake early measures when there are still few cases, when the cases can still be detected and isolated,” said Garcia-Sastre in an interview with EFE in nearby Central Park.

Garcia-Sastre said that in “countries like Spain and Italy, perhaps, if the (measures) could have been taken earlier, the infections might not have increased so rapidly,” and he recommended to citizens of countries where there are still not many cases, like in Latin America, that they take “(social) distancing measures” and for people to “have less contact” with one another.

And he urged the authorities to “close down schools and shows” to ensure that the virus spreads “more slowly.”

“The important thing is to know that … our personal behavior also influences the ability to slow the contagion … because we don’t want everyone (to get sick) all at once and collapse the hospital (system),” he emphasized.

Garcia-Sastre said that South Korea decided to take containment measures “right from the start,” which enabled that country to slow the spread of Covid-19 there.

Once the disease “is … widely spread” effective “diagnosis … is not possible or is more difficult.” In this case, he recommends that it would be better for people not go to hospitals to be tested to avoid transmitting or contracting the disease.

But above all, he recommended not to follow the UK example – which that country had pursued until Monday, March 16 – for dealing with the epidemic because that approach can result in many deaths.

“Not taking any measures and trying to get everyone to get sick as soon as possible to reduce the transmission of the virus increases the number of severe cases to a very high level during a specific time period and there are going to be people who’re going to die because they won’t have access to hospital care,” said the virologist, who holds an “honorary” doctorate from the university in his native city: Burgos, Spain.

In addition, Garcia-Sastre expressed his hope that London “changes the attitude it has now, listens to the scientists … and start to put containment measures in place like many other places are doing.”

The UK abruptly changed its coronavirus strategy Monday after health authorities, relying on new data, said that its existing approach would result in the deaths of perhaps 250,000 people. The government of Boris Johnson had come under harsh criticism for its plan to merely “mitigate” the spread of the virus in the UK rather than to “suppress” it.

Garcia-Sastre has been living in New York for 30 years, settling there after he concluded his doctoral studies at the University of Salamanca. He spoke slowly, accustomed to translating medical vocabulary into the language of the layman.

“It’s a serious thing, but it’s also not a question of panicking,” he said before emphasizing that the majority of the population who contract the virus will have only “a slight illness.”

Nevertheless, he said the elderly and those who are immuno-compromised are “those who are really going to suffer.”

“(In) prior flu pandemics, normally they occur in two or three waves. Right now, we’re in the first wave. Infections will certainly begin to drop off, but they won’t be extinguished altogether during the summer and then another wave will begin in the winter, and that could be the big one,” he said, going on to note that the virulence of the second wave will depend on how many people get sick now.

After the third wave, the virus – he said – will remain among us “as a normal, respiratory seasonal virus, that will basically affect children born after this pandemic, to which they don’t have immunity,” but it will not be a serious and ongoing problem for humanity as a whole.

“Without a vaccine, the virus is going to continue circulating until about 40 percent of the population has been infected,” Garcia-Sastre predicted, adding that then the number of infections will begin declining and in about two years between 70-80 percent of the population will have been infected “and it won’t any longer cause the problems it’s causing (now).”


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